Merchant Marine POW's and MIA's
by Captain George W. Duffy
On September 19, 1998, I was the keynote speaker at the rededication of a POW/MIA memorial on the grounds of the former Pease AFB at Newington, NH. Conversion of the base to civilian use required that the memorial be moved and rebuilt in a position adjacent to the New Hampshire Air National Guard HQ. I agreed to speak on the condition that my remarks would pertain only to U.S. merchant seamen POWs and MIAs.
Slightly over 10 years ago, this could not have been. Then, I was not considered to be a veteran. Then, I did not have the right to wear this POW medal. For over 40 years following the end of WWII, Congress after Congress rebuffed the attempts of WWII merchant seamen who were attempting to gain the veterans status promised us by President Roosevelt shortly before his death.
Finally, in 1988, in response to a legal action, a Federal court judge in Washington ruled that the government was in error and that our service in WWII was to be considered active duty.
A great injustice was made right!
Nevertheless, it was a rather hollow victory because the only benefits available to most of us are a flag for our coffin and a grave marker. And for me - the POW medal!
I relate this history to provide a back drop for two narratives I wish to deliver today: The merchant seaman POW. The merchant seaman MIA.
Of the 168,000 persons who sailed in the U.S. merchant marine in WWII it is highly improbable that any one of them ever gave a thought to the possibility of being taken prisoner. The chance of losing one's life to a torpedo, or a bomb, or a kamikaze was an accepted risk, but to become a prisoner was literally unimaginable. The numbers prove my point: 509 men and 1 woman captured [609 including 2 women according to some sources].
The details are interesting. 24 were picked up by the 8 German and 2 Japanese submarines that sank their 10 ships. Most notable of those 24 was Capt. Henry Stephenson of the Grace Lines freighter SANTA RITA. In 1942, 66 years old, he was plucked from a lifeboat by the crew of the U-172. Was there ever an Army or Navy or Marine Corps officer on active duty at that age? Exactly a year and a day later, while he languished in Milag Nord near Bremen, his son, LCDR Richard Stephenson, a Naval aviator was killed in action over Sicily.
70 merchant seamen survived the sinking of 2 ships by 2 Japanese surface raiders and became POWs. 95 men from 3 vessels were made prisoner by the German raider MICHEL. This latter group, of which I was a member, had the unfortunate fate of eventually being handed over to the Japanese. Only in the merchant marine!
31 men survived the sinking of the CARLTON in the infamous PQ-17 convoy, only to be picked up by German float planes and taken to Norway. The balance of the 510 were caught in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Manila in December 1941 when the Japanese overran those cities; the lone female merchant seaman POW was among them.
Other American merchant seamen were captured, but they were not sailing in American flag ships - a fairly common practice in those days. The Texaco tanker CONNECTICUT, for example, was flying the Panamanian flag when she was sunk. Her entire crew of 38 was American, plus a 16 man U.S. Navy Armed Guard. Only 13 of the 54 lived to be taken prisoner by the previously mentioned MICHEL, and later turned over to the Japanese.
Now the MIA. I read from Ecclesiastics 44:9 -
"And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born."
No one knows how many American merchant seamen were lost in WWII. 6,600, 6,700, 6,800, 7,000? I have seen the total as high as 9,000. The use of approximate figures may seem odd, but the truth is that no one - no U.S. government agency, no record center, no one at all - knows precisely how many of our merchant seamen died in that war. Other than a book in a glass case at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point which is admittedly incomplete, there is no public display or depository of the names of merchant seamen who are on their last voyage. It is indeed "as though they had never been".
How did this state of affairs come to be?
First, it must be recognized that many of the between-wars, Depression-era merchant seamen were nomads, men without family ties, or with families in the Far East or Europe. WWII further isolated them. Many used their seamen's union hall as their home address. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, was the practice followed by many American companies whereby they registered their ships in foreign countries, Panama in particular. Men lost in those ships just disappeared. Who could be notified? Who cared?
Whatever their number, one fact is without dispute: almost every one of them is MISSING IN ACTION. Few deceased merchant seamen found a grave ashore. The very nature of their calling dictated that the sea be their final resting place. Consider that in WWII 43 U.S. flag merchant vessels were lost with all hands! Over 1,600 men, ranging from 133 in the passenger vessel COAMO to 8 in the schooner ALBERT F. PAUL went down with their ships. Most of these 43 simply disappeared. They left port and, as in the case of the ESSO WILLIAMSBURG were never heard from again.
Seven men on a life raft were photographed from the conning tower of the U-123 which had just torpedoed their tanker, the MUSKOGEE. Neither they nor anyone else from that ship were ever seen again.
The commander of the U-159 reported the loss of the ammunition laden LASALLE off Capetown with the words, "Ship atomized. Pillar of flame hundreds of meters high. For minutes splinters rained down on my deck wounding 3 men on bridge watch."
In the stormy North Atlantic, in convoy, the HARRY LUCKENBACH was torpedoed. Many of her crew managed to get away is several lifeboats. The convoy swept onward, neither the rescue ships nor the escort vessels saw the boats and another 54 merchant seamen went MIA. (MMA readers note, Capt. A. Sellars, '09, Second Officer Robert H. Sheridan, '17, and Third Officer Albert H. Farrell, '41 were in the LASALLE, and Second Officer Concetto J. Auditore, '41 was in the HARRY LUCKENBACH.)
In addition to those 43 vessels lost with all hands, 8 more had only 1 survivor each. From those 51 ships a total of over 2,000 American seamen disappeared, "As though they had never been born".
And if all that was not bad enough, consider that maritime law regards the voyage to have terminated if a vessel sinks, or is stranded, or otherwise destroyed. Concurrent with such happening, the wages of her crew are similarly terminated.
Upon reflection, one may wonder why we ever went to sea in those days. It was, however, our profession, our calling. It was a life for which we trained and studied. Many of us continued to go to sea after the war. Following my repatriation after over 3 years as a POW I remained home for less than 90 days and went back. That's all that I knew.
Subsequently, over the intervening years, I have seized upon every opportunity to relate the story of the United States Merchant Marine, and the terrible toll taken upon its men and women in WWII. Thank you for allowing me and my fellow merchant mariners here present to participate in this rededication ceremony. (MMA note: Capt. Rodman Dickie '40, placed the ceremonial wreath on the memorial.)
A similar version of this story appeared in The Daily News of Newburyport, Massachusetts
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